‘Impending doom’: teachers dread the ‘big bang’ reopening of schools in England | Schools

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Earlier this week the prime minister announced a “big bang” return to school for all children in England on 8 March, despite teaching unions’ calls for a phased reopening.

Amid warnings from scientists that the move could lead to a new rise in Covid-19 infections, four teachers spoke about their concerns for their pupils and colleagues.

‘It’s like a sense of impending doom’

Jack Marsh, 34, a teacher at John Stainer community primary school in Brockley, south London, said he feared that reopening schools was being rushed, and could lead to a further lockdown.

“Teachers should have the option to be vaccinated before they return,” he said. “Otherwise, I don’t think schools can be safely reopened. Social distancing is so difficult to enforce in a primary school. Are we going to see the same happen when schools reopened last term – a spike in cases and classes being shut down because we’ve jumped the gun too soon?”

Marsh, who has been teaching key workers’ children in person, said the prospect of schools fully reopening was exacerbating the anxiety he already felt due to the stress of teaching during the pandemic.

“It’s like a sense of impending doom,” he added. “I try not to let it get me down, but it’s more like a physical sensation. It’s always there. I’ve contacted my GP about it.”

Marsh also raised concern about the massive task facing teachers in bringing pupils back up to the academic standard they would otherwise be at.

“Some children who were writing in full sentences before are now just scribbling little drawings. Others have forgotten concepts like addition and subtraction. Some will probably close the gap by the end of the following academic year. But for others it might take until the end of a key stage – three or four years.”

One of Jack Marsh’s main concerns is how badly some children’s education has gone into reverse. Photograph: Jack Marsh/Guardian Community

‘It took me about half an hour to do a lateral flow test and we have hundreds of students’

In the Midlands, secondary school teacher Alan (not his real name) said that he was concerned the return could disrupt learning, with Covid isolations meaning some students would be learning from home while others were at school.

“Towards the end of the year, we had up to a third off school at one point. In one of my classes, most students had to self isolate three times, meaning six were left in the room, and 25 at home, watching a live feed of a lesson. This wasn’t better, it wasn’t helping the majority of the class who were at home, as their capacity to be involved in the lesson was far diminished by the fact I had students in the room, and therefore couldn’t always keep tabs on them.”

Alan also had doubts about the feasibility of the government testing scheme.

“The students we’ve got in school are being tested twice a week, but it’s going to be very different on a bigger scale. It took me about half an hour all told to do a lateral flow test, and we have hundreds of students. And I’m guessing getting some of the year 7 and 8 students to shove a cotton bud at their tonsils is not going to go well,” he said. “Nobody has thought about the practicalities and we only have two weeks’ notice.”

‘We’ve done all we can’

George, a sixth form teacher in London.
George, who teaches a sixth form in London, says his school has an on-site test centre. Photograph: George/Guardian Community

George, a 21-year-old sixth form teacher in London, said staff had felt safer at school while just key worker and vulnerable children were in the building. “Having 16 to 18-year-old students, they’re a lot safer in their practices, like wearing masks, but you can’t social distance,” he said.

“We worked it out, and if we did social distancing, we’d have six or seven children in classrooms. We did equations on people going upstairs while distancing, and worked out we wouldn’t be able to do the [class] changeovers. The government also don’t seem have thought about transport. We have people using the underground to get to school.”

“We’ve done all we can, but there’s not much you can do to stop transmission when you’ve got hundreds of people from different boroughs in one building,” he added.

However, George said he thought the school was “as prepared as we can be”.

While the majority of pupils have been learning remotely this term, George’s school has been setting up an on-site testing facility but this has capacity for only around five students at a time due to social distancing measures. He said testing all students twice a week, under the new government plans, would be a “massive operation”.

‘I think we have reached a tipping point regarding children’s mental health’

However some teachers believe that it’s important to get children back to school as soon as possible.

“I think the government are right to be cautious but I think we have reached a tipping point regarding children’s mental health,” said Maria Balhetchet, a music teacher in her 50s in Poole. “I’ve noticed a lot of my teenage pupils have become restless with the isolation and have told me that they’re now finding it very difficult to focus on academic work whilst at home. They definitely need to go back to school now.”

Balhetchet said she thought her younger students were coping better than older ones, who she said are “desperate” to get back.

“They look stressed. One pupil hates school but can’t wait to get back, and said they never thought they’d say that. Another who is very studious said they had no motivation. We’ve all got to a tipping point.”

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